The Winslow Tunnel
by John M. Floyd
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
He seemed to be about to say more, but a sudden change in the rhythm and noise level of the train interrupted him. Everyone looked at each other. The ride had gotten rougher, and the clacking and rattling of the wheels was louder now. When Mr. Hardy picked up the PA box to explain, we learned that two things had happened. First, we had crossed over onto the older-style tracks; second, we had reached our maximum cruising speed of 35 miles per hour.
The conductor went on for a while with more information about the train. Today, he said, since it was a Saturday, it would be carrying passengers only. On weekdays it handled both passengers and freight. He also furnished some interesting stories about the countryside. Outside our windows, the terrain had become hilly and wooded, with swift streams and tall mountains visible in the distance. Twice we spotted deer at the edge of the woods. The slate-gray clouds grew darker.
Every few minutes Mr. Hardy picked up his black box and faced the passengers. On one occasion he pointed out the strange-looking bois d’arc trees used by the Osage Indians to make their bows and arrows. Even now, he said, farmers in the area often search out the straightest of the trees to cut and sell to the makers of archery equipment.
Some of the best stories, though, were the legends and superstitions and trivia surrounding the little towns we passed on the way. Each of them — Greenland, West Fork, Brentwood — had its own unique history, and to a city boy the tales of rugged mountain men and their primitive farms and settlements were fascinating.
The village of Winslow, for example — our approximate halfway point to Van Buren — was known for having the highest altitude of any incorporated town in Arkansas. Built at the crest of the divide between the White and Arkansas Rivers, the conductor told us, it had long ago been a summer resort and a booming lumber town. Even now, as we passed, I imagined horse-drawn wagons plying the muddy streets, and could almost hear the ring of axes on timber in the clear mountain air.
I was sitting there gazing out the window, drinking in these mental images, when I heard Mr. Hardy unclip his mike again.
“In a few moments, the train will pass through a tunnel — the only one on our trip today. It was built in 1882, and is about half a mile long. It’ll take a full minute to get through it, and it’ll be totally dark inside.” He paused to make sure he had everyone’s attention. “One word of caution. Since there are several couples on board, I don’t want to hear about any hanky-panky in the tunnel.”
Several people chuckled, and he added, “I didn’t say there couldn’t be any hanky-panky. I just don’t want to hear about it.”
Now everybody hooted laughter. Smiling, Mr. Hardy replaced the mike and took his seat. And then, while I sat there in our comfortable coach, feeling the pleasant summer wind in my face and staring out at the green mountains and wondering how fantastic it would have been to live in the Olden Days, the train entered the tunnel.
* * *
It happened fast. One moment we were in daylight, the next we were plunged into a sudden and noisy darkness. It was a scary feeling — the wind whistling around my head, the wheels clanging and roaring against the rails. The noise seemed to come from everywhere at once. No one spoke. At one point I held my hand up in front of my face and couldn’t see it. The conductor had been right: it was pitch black in the car.
After what seemed much longer than a mere sixty seconds, we emerged into bright light. In fact it seemed even brighter than it had been, before we’d entered the tunnel. An instant later I realized why: The sun was out. Out and blazing away, lighting up the fields and the mountains under a brilliant blue...
A brilliant blue sky.
I leaned to the right, hanging out the window, looking for clouds. There were none. The sky was clear.
Puzzled, I turned to my left to see what my dad thought of this. After all, you don’t normally go from overcast to sunny in the course of half a mile.
But my father was gone. In his place was a kindly-looking old lady in a green dress, staring straight ahead and murmuring to herself. When I looked around, I saw that Mom and Jenny were missing also. Their seat, right in front of me, was empty.
And something else was funny too. Their seat wasn’t just empty — it was brown. A dark, worn brown, with cuts and splits and stains in the material. A quick look around showed me that the other seats were the same. Even my own seat had changed in color from green to brown. And there were no brass or mahogany trimmings, either.
What is this? I thought. And where are my folks?
I looked across the aisle to where the conductor had been sitting, but he, too, was gone. And there were no framed prints hanging on the forward wall anymore. Just old, grimy boards, with a few posted notices and a calendar.
What was happening?
I felt the first little tingle of panic, deep in my gut.
And then the conductor came back into the coach. The sight of his black uniform brought a heartfelt sigh of relief.
But the sigh died in the bottom of my throat.
This wasn’t the same conductor.
Even his outfit was different. Black suit and cap, all right, and white shirt, but all similarity ended there. This uniform was smudged with what looked like oil or soot. And he wore a little string tie and high-topped shoes, and no name tag. Only the eyeglasses were the same: round wire-rimmed spectacles.
But the biggest change was the face behind the glasses. This man was about the same age as Thomas Hardy had been, but had a thin nose and blue eyes and a gray mustache. In fact, he looked vaguely like an older, tireder version of...
The thought hit me like a punch to the stomach.
He looked like my father.
Before I could give myself time to think about it, I whirled around and looked at the other passengers. They couldn’t see me well, since I was so short and tucked away beside my old-lady seat mate, but I could see them. And what I saw almost stopped my heart.
There were less than two dozen passengers aboard. We had had a full car before. And these people had something in common: They were dressed in clothes straight out of a history book. Or at least out of an old colorized movie. Everyone was wearing a hat, for one thing, and the men’s suits and ladies’ dresses were all a zillion years out of style. Old-timey clothes, my Uncle Jack used to call them. Even the elderly woman beside me was wearing a bonnet and a pair of lace-up shoes.
I looked at the conductor again, my pulse pounding so hard I could barely think. As I gaped at him, he pulled a watch from a fold of his vest, a big copper pocketwatch with a gold chain and a winding slot instead of a stem, and when I saw it the last shred of doubt left my mind. I didn’t yet know how it had happened, or why, but I understood at last what was going on, and where I was.
The conductor — the man standing there looking at his watch — was my great-great-grandfather, and I was on his train. And the time was long, long ago.
Be careful what you wish for, Dad had said.
I squeezed my eyes shut, took a deep breath. When I opened them again I looked down at my own clothes, and was somehow surprised to discover I was still dressed in the blue jeans and T-shirt and Reeboks I’d put on in the motel this morning. Oddly enough, the sight was comforting. It suggested that maybe — just maybe — I was still in the present after all, and was dreaming all this.
But when I reached up and pinched my earlobe, it didn’t wake me up. All it did was hurt.
I sat there trying to process all this newly-acquired information. It didn’t work. Nothing made sense.
Suddenly I tensed. The train was slowing down. For a moment I thought of the Langtree gang and train robberies and tracks blocked with fallen trees, but when I looked out the window again, I saw only a tiny depot and a row of houses. Cordwood was stacked against the loading platform, the ends yellow-white and freshly cut. There was no sign on the depot.
When we’d groaned to a stop, I saw a young man who’d been waiting on the platform climb onto the train and into our coach. He nodded to the conductor, who was on his way out, and then came to my row and leaned down to speak to the old lady sharing my seat. I caught the name “Mrs. Derryberry” and something about Rufus and Esther being at the house, waiting.
She nodded. Her glassy eyes had not moved; they still stared straight ahead. After the boy had gathered her things, he helped her up and led her slowly out the door and down the steps to the platform, where an older man met them and guided her down to the street and into...
I swallowed hard, staring dumbstruck at the scene outside the window.
They helped her into a buckboard.
My God, I thought. What year is this, anyway?
Even as the question entered my mind, and as the train puffed and wheezed and began to pick up speed, I remembered what Dad had told us about his great-grandfather’s death. I didn’t know yet what date this was, but I knew one thing: it had to be before July 4, 1910.
I found that thought disturbing on several levels. I glanced again at the conductor. He’s not only my relative, I thought, he’s my ancestor. And I wondered what I should do. The depot was behind us now, and he was sitting there looking out his window. Should I try to identify myself to him? Boy, would that get a reaction. I wondered what they did in this day and time to people, especially kids, who showed signs of mental instability. Lock ’em up and drop the key down a well, probably.
But if I knew the exact day and date that this man sitting ten feet away from me was scheduled to die, was I not in some way obligated to inform him of it? To warn him?
Maybe not. Maybe I had no right to. Having watched a hundred reruns of Quantum Leap and Back to the Future, I wasn’t so certain I would even be allowed to do it. Tampering with the events of the past could alter the present, couldn’t it? Maybe such a thing was forbidden.
But if it was, what was I doing here?
I sighed and closed my eyes again. This isn’t fair, I told myself. I’m ten years old. I’m too young to have to face decisions like this.
This time, when I opened my eyes again, I looked around the swaying car very carefully, searching for anything that might help me sort this out. My gaze stopped on the calendar on the bulkhead wall. I had noticed it earlier but hadn’t given it any real attention. Now that I better understood my role as time-traveler, the sight of a calendar made my heart skip a beat.
I leaned forward in my seat, squinting.
The top half of the calendar was a painting of the mountains in springtime — pretty but irrelevant. The bottom half, though, was exactly what I was looking for.
It was a simple grid of the month of May, 1908.
I stared for a long time at the words and numbers.
More than a hundred years ago.
I sucked in some air, blew it out, and concentrated on the back of the seat in front of me, thinking hard.
I was riding on a train through the Ozark Mountains in May of 1908.
Copyright © 2018 by John M. Floyd